Ashes, Ashes, We All Fall Down

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Palms are burned for ashes at Saint Bernard’s.

If you’re reading this on Wednesday, you might have noticed that there are a lot of people walking around with dirt on their faces today. Actually, those are ashes. For many Christians, today is Ash Wednesday, the first of forty days of Lent. So, what’s with the ashes?

The ancient reason for using ashes comes from our Jewish heritage where people would sometimes heap ashes on themselves as a sign of repentance before God. So too we mark our foreheads with ashes today, because each of us has at least a little something to repent of. But I’d like to suggest a couple of other considerations as to why ashes are appropriate for our time.

First, it’s normal to have a dirty face when we’ve been working. Whether we’re gardening or cleaning the garage or attic, we often see the smears of dust and dirt on our faces when we go in to wash up. They are outward signs that we’ve been at work. I suggest that the ashes are equally signs that we’re at work. What work? Helping others in need, making peace at work or in our families, visiting or caring for someone who is sick, and yes, even physically working to clean up our planet — picking up trash, etc.

Second, you might remember that childhood rhyme, “Ring around the rosey, pockets full of posies, ashes, ashes, we all fall down.” While the origin of this chant was connected to the plague in Europe (google it!), I like the truth of it: “ashes, ashes, we all fall down.” There isn’t a person I know who hasn’t fallen down in life. People fall from their diets, fall from being patient, fall from fidelity, fall from sobriety, fall from being generous, fall from taking care of themselves or others. There are lots of falls. And we ALL fall down.

So ashes are a sign that we’re in this together. As people who fail and fall we can have sympathy and mercy for those who fail us. Ashes are a reminder that none of us are perfect and that we need each other’s help in getting up from our falls. We won’t settle for the tag line of that old commercial, “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.”

For Christians, Lent is all about “up.” Sure we “give up” things as an act of penance or as a discipline that lets us live as better people. (Imagine if those crazy drivers rushing through your block gave up such recklessness? That would make it easier to give up cursing!)

But “up” is not just about giving up. Up is about living a more noble, balanced, healthy, holy life. Up is about holding our heads up high because, though we have fallen at times, we don’t let our failures define who we are. So often people dwell more on what’s wrong with them then what’s right with them.

So we take this day and wear what’s wrong on our foreheads. And then we wash the ashes off. And we’re up again, ready again, to trust again, give again, forgive again and love again.

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Pastor of St. Bernard's since 2013 and known for his engaging homilies and community presence, Father Ralph Sommer is also a treasured columnist for the Levittown Tribune.

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